Have you ever been at a concert with sound mixing so awful you walked over to the soundboard operator and asked him what the hell he's doing? If so, you're probably an audiophile—the most obnoxious type of music nerd. You're also probably into fine-tuning and perfecting every bit of audio you consume.
Music is one thing, but our auditory lives are not solely defined by music. Everything from crowd banter to the screech of an approaching subway car takes a toll on our ears. Augmented reality is already being used to visually manipulate our environments, so why aren't we talking about augmenting our acoustic reality?
That's exactly what Doppler Labs is doing with its active listening system. Dubbed "Here," these in-ear headphones binaurally and wirelessly adjust incoming sound. Said another way, they let you personalize your audio environment.
With a detailed suite of audio tools, Here allows you to dynamically control the volume (noise cancelling) and frequency (EQ) of everything you hear, and even allows you to "augment" that information with reverb, echo, and filter effects.
There are a number of different applications for the Here earbuds. Concert-goers can use them to, in effect, become their own soundboard operator. You can use the noise-cancelling feature to turn the music up or down, and even zero in on certain instruments with EQ filtering.
Beyond music venues, Here—or AR headphones like them—could be used to isolate one speaker in a crowd, or to dynamically soften or "mute" the frequency of a screeching subway train. Then there's airplanes, which are one of the best environments for noise cancelling headphones.
I had a chance to try out Here at Digital Experience in Las Vegas, and was far more impressed than I expected to be. While the buds weren't able to completely mute or "cancel out" the noise of the show floor—I don't think technology that powerful exists yet—they were able to accomplish some nifty tricks.
I struggled to think of a use for the echo and "psychedelic" (flange) effects, but the ability to use dynamic EQ to adjust my ears' tonal information was pretty neat. The noise-cancelling tech was also effective at adjusting the decibel range of my surroundings.
The Here headphones may sound a little gimmicky, but they point to a future where we'll be able to zero in, tune out, and modify our visual and auditory stimuli. If we accept that AR glasses and headsets—not to mention virtual reality—will soon join the mainstream of consumer gadgetry, then there's no reason to suspect that auditory AR won't do the same.
(For my part, I can't help wondering whether it's wise to veil our senses from reality.)
If the Here Active Listening System intrigues you, I have good news and bad news. Bad news first: Doppler Labs only produced a limited run of the earbuds, exclusively for its Kickstarter backers. The good news? The company plans to release an improved version with dynamic stereo controls later this year. You can add your name to the waitlist here. There's no word on pricing just yet.